The Modes of the Major Scale - Developing a Practice Routine
Published July 10th, 2006. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

Practicing the Modal Scales - I've recently received a decent amount of e-mail relating to modes and general practice routines regarding the use of modes so I've decided to dedicate a whole lesson to the subject. First make sure that you understand the modes and their applications before moving on. This lesson will simply help you develop a practice routine and I will not dedicate a lot of time to modal theory. If you need to review, click on the links (sorry, no lessons for the aolian or locrian modes):

  • The dorian mode - Built on the second degree of the major scale, used over a minor family chord which may include a major 6th in its voicing such as min6 or min13. A common chord progression would be a ii - V chord progression.
  • The phrygian mode - Built on the third degree of the major scale, although minor by description, this mode is often used over a sus(b9) chord. A common progression would be a iii - IV chord progression.
  • The lydian mode - Built on the fourth degree of the major scale, this mode is commonly used over a major family chord which may often include a raised 4th or 11th such as a maj7#11 chord.
  • The mixolydian mode - Built on the fifth degree of the major scale, this mode is used over an unaltered dominant chord.
  • The aolian mode - The natural minor scale. May be used over a minor family chord (but must not contain a major 6th in its voicing), but is more often used in a minor chord progression.
  • The locrian mode - Built on the seventh degree of the major scale, this mode is used over a min7b5 chord.

Now let me answer some of your questions:

Q: If the modes as you describe are all basically the major scale superimposed over various diatonic chords, why even bother naming them. What's the big deal?

A: The method I describe in my lessons is the "derivative" approach or point of view. What this means is that I refer everything back to the major scale (the mother scale, so to speak). As an example, let's take the dorian mode. I taught you to think: the dorian mode is the major scale down a major second. If you need to play a D dorian mode, you can simply play the major scale that is down a 2nd (C major in this case). This works for all the modes:

Dorian = major scale down a 2nd. (Ex: C dorian = Bb major)
Phrygian = major scale down a 3rd. (Ex: C Phrygian = Ab major)
Lydian = major scale up a 5th. (Ex: C lydian = G major)
Mixolydian = major scale up a 4th. (Ex: C mixolydian = F major)
Aolian = major scale up a minor 3rd. (Ex: C aolian = Eb major)
Locrian = major scale up a minor 2nd. (Ex: C locrian = Db major)

Q: I was taught that, for example, the mixolydian mode is built from the 5th degree of the major scale. Why would you want to think "mixolydian = major scale up a 4th?"

A: Well, of course the mixolydian scale is the mode played from the fifth degree of the major scale, but this information doesn't really help you as an improvisor. You need to play over a G7 chord and want to play the mixolydian mode right? You have to think from the chord you have to play over, who cares what degree of what major scale the mode is. This might help you in a theory class, but not when you are on the spot. You have G7, the major scale up a 4th is the scale you need to play. It is a quick and effective way of getting what you need.

By understanding the previous formulas, you are guaranteed to get the appropriate mode without much effort. The advantage of this method is simple; it is quick and needs little thought. The disadvantage is in the fact that it is quick and needs little thought. It doesn't tell you anything about the characteristics of the mode, its intervals and tonality. Yes, it tells how to play one but it doesn't tell you what it is. You see, the modes all have their own tonal centers apart from the mother scale (the major scale) and it is important to understand the tonality and inherent harmony of the individual modes. Let us take a look at another method of classification. It is the "Parallel" method or point of view.

Parallel System
What we will do here is forget about the parent major scale and think of the mode as a separate scale all together (which in all reality it is). This point of view would say that the dorian mode is, compared to the parallel major scale, a scale with a fixed set of intervals: 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7. The advantage is simple, it shows you clearly what the scale is, its intervals, its tonality and the harmony born from it. It is clear and direct. The disadvantage is that to play it using this method of classification means that you have to learn a separate scale pattern for every mode. I mean, lets say you are playing a tune and the chart tells you that it is time for you to play a solo and gives you a Cmin7 chord to solo over. You would have to think; "Okay, Cmin7, that means I can use the dorian mode, let me think here, the root is C, a 2nd from that is D, a b3rd from the root is Eb, the 4th is F, the 5th is G, the 6th is A and finally the b7th is Bb." It is a lot of thinking to do if you are not yet familiar with all five of the dorian scale patterns. Using our first method, the derivative approach, you would simply say to yourself in the same situation; "I have to solo over a Cmin7 chord, so I need to play the C dorian mode, let's see, a 2nd down is Bb so if I play a Bb major scale everything will be cool." This approach takes a lot less effort. Regardless it is important to look at the modes from the "parallel" standpoint in order to truly understand the nature of each individual mode. The parallel system works for all the modes:

Dorian = 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7
Phrygian = 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7
Lydian = 1-2-3-#4-5-6-7
Mixolydian = 1-2-3-4-5-6-b7
Aolian = 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7
Locrian = 1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7

As you can see, there are both advantages and disadvantages to both these methods. I personally believe it is important to understand both. I tend to teach beginners using the first method simply because it allows someone with little experience to get immediate results with little effort. The student simply needs to know the major scale. By knowing five patterns of the major scale and a few rules you can play every mode. By using the "parallel" method, to get the same results, the same student wound need to know thirty-five different patterns (five patterns x seven modes). Using the "parallel" method you would think of the dorian scale pattern like this (black notes are the "dorian" root):

The ultimate goal is to know both and then get enough experience using the modes to never have to think about it again. For example, if I were in the same situation and a Cmin7 chord popped up at me on a chart, I would simply play a solo and not think a whole lot about it. My experience tells me how to do it; it is second nature and would come out mostly dorian without a second thought. But there was a time when I would have thought; "What major scale should I play?" Even now, when it comes to the modes that I don't use daily, I have to think about it a little. Phrygian is a pretty good example, I would tend to think; "Hmm...Csus(b9), I need to play the Phrygian mode. Let's see, a 3rd down from C is Ab, so I need an Ab major scale. What are my chord tones? C-F-G-Db, I'll pay close attention to those notes and use my ears." Sort of a combination of both methods I guess.

Q: Why can't I just play arpeggios over the chord changes, why do I have to be bothered with playing scales anyway?

A: Arpeggios are fine and dandy and in some situations are more easily used than a modal approach but there is only so much you can do using them. If you were playing bebop, arpeggios would probably be your weapons of choice but if you want to play modal music, the kind that was born in the sixties, you will need to understand modes. You see, unlike bebop, where chords change at breakneck speed, modal music is based on modal chords each lasting perhaps four measures per chord. If you had to play over a Dmin7 chord for four or eight measures, playing a D minor arpeggio is going to old quick. Scales give more choices. Some names that can be associated with modal music: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

Q: The whole thing is too much; I can't connect all the modes together when playing over standards.

A: I know, it is a lot of work and I never said it was going to be easy. The whole thing will take time and practice. Let me show you I how I did it. First off, can you play all your major scale patterns? If you can, you are ready to move on to practicing the modes. If not, go back to the lesson on the major scale and learn them. I took the modes one at a time, starting with the dorian mode. The dorian mode is a good place to start, not just because it is the second mode of the major scale but because it is probably the most used. It is so commonly used by Jazz musicians that some guys (including myself somewhat) use a form of "derivative" thinking to use it against other modal chords. We may think to ourselves when having to play over a dominant chord for example; "G9sus.. I need to play the mixolydian mode over this. Hmm.. the mixolydian mode is the dorian mode up a 5th so I need to play a D dorian scale." That's right, the dorian mode is so common that for some musicians it actually replaces the major scale as the center of the diatonic universe. It is not necessary to approach modal improvisation this way for now, let's stick to our major scale "derivative" approach. As you know the dorian mode works over a min7 chord (as well as a min9, min11, min13, minadd9, min6 and min69 chord). First start by playing over a two-chord vamp. Make it easy on yourself at first; two chords for four measures a piece. The chords need to be unrelated, so a progression like Dmin7 - Emin7 doesn't work as well because they are both diatonic to the key of C major, thus the D dorian mode will work (and sounds best) over both the chords. They should come from different keys. For example: Amin7 - Cmin7 or Amin7 - C#min7 or Amin7 - Ebmin7 or Amin7 - F#min7. These chords could also be min9, min11 or any other of the "dorian" type chords. I've come up with the first one for you. It is a two-chord vamp consisting of an Amin7 and Cmin7 chord. Play the A dorian mode (G major scale) over the Amin7 chord and the C dorian mode (Bb major scale) over the Cmin7 chord. Before you get going, I want you to keep these things in mind:

Line up the scale patterns
This will help you to connect lines over the barlines. The major scale roots are black while the modal roots are gray. The top scale is the A dorian mode, the one below is the C dorian mode:

A dorian (G major)/C dorian (Bb major) scales

Play over the barlines using target tones
The most important part of the eight bar chord progression is where the chord changes. Therefore see if you can play without stopping especially where the chord changes. Specifically play without pause on bars 4-5 and 8-1. When you connect your lines see if you can connect to target tones. The target tones should be chord tones of the modal chords. Amin7 = A-C-E-G, Cmin7 = C-Eb-G-Bb. The following lines work well over the barlines. Notice how I approach from the closest tone above or below from the previous scale. I'll be using these two scale patterns for the following examples:
A dorian/C dorian
Targeting the root, C of the Cmin7 chord:
Targeting the b3rd, Eb of the Cmin7 chord:
And finally targeting the 5th, E of the Amin7 chord:

Using common tones
You can use common tones to sort of glue the two tonalities together. This technique works best when the common tome used is also one of the stronger chord tones (1-3-5-7). What common tones do our Amin7 (A-C-E-G) and Cmin7 (C-Eb-G-Bb) chord have in common? The answer is C (the b3rd of Amin7 and the root of Cmin7) and G (the b7th of Amin7 and the 5th of Cmin7). Here is an example of how to tie two bars together using these common tones. In this case, I 'm using a G note (the b7th of Amin7 and the 5th of Cmin7):


Practicing sequences over the barlines will challenge you. In this example I am using a group of four sequence:

Record or sequence the chord changes and get to work. I have included all the scale patterns below as a reference (try working in one position at a time until it becomes natural):
A dorian (G major)/C dorian (Bb major) scales

Same thing, two bars per chord:

Let's complicate things by adding more minor chords: Amin7-Cmin7-Ebmin7-F#min7. The scales you need to use: A dorian (G major), C dorian (Bb major), Eb dorian (Db major), F# dorian (E major). I've included the scale patterns for reference:
A dorian (G major)/C dorian (Bb major)/Eb dorian (Db major)/F# dorian (E major)
And the chord progression:

Some more questions I have received:

Q: I can't hit the target tones. I don't have enough time to think about where it is and come up with a line to get me there. What should I do?

A: Slow the tempo down enough for you to pull it off. Even if it is so slow it sounds silly, do it. Build up speed a little at a time.

Q: I seem to keep falling back into my familiar habit of playing the minor pentatonic scales, is that okay?

A: It is fine to mix up the dorian mode and the minor pentatonic scale. If you look closely, you will find it inside. But if you are specifically practicing the dorian mode, do not play the minor pentatonic scale until you are an expert at playing the dorian mode first. Remember you are practicing here, not playing, so work on your weaknesses first. On a gig, do anything that sounds good.

Q: What should I move on to after I have the dorian mode down?

A: Move on to the other modes. Mixolydian or Lydian seem logical choices. Do the same thing with them as you did here. See if you can combine minor, major and dominant chords in combination using the modes in combination also.

Modal Practice Routine pt.2

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